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An Integrated Approach to Configuration Management

By Andreas Lindenthal and Henrik Hulgaard

When we talk about product configuration we need to distinguish between engineering configuration and sales configuration. 

Generally engineering defines all the variants, options, alternates and rules that are technically possible. This is often done in a PLM system during the development of the product. Sales or product management then defines the variants, options and alternates that a company wants to or is able to sell based on their markets, customer preferences and also availability. A customer or sales representative can then select those options, typically in a sales configurator that has a very nice and easy to use web-based user interface. 

What is technically possible and what a company can and wants to sell are two different things. For example it may be technically possible to configure leather seats with the base version of a car, but the company may not want to sell that combination to their customers. They may only want to offer leather seats as an option for the luxury version of the car. So in PLM it may be possible to combine leather seats with the base version, but in the sales configurator it should not be. Also, alloy wheels may be technically possible and hence are an option in the engineering configurator, but because alloy wheels are not available in inventory and the restocking time is months out a company may not want to offer that option at the moment. Hence the sales configurator should not allow choosing that option at the moment or at least display a warning that the delivery time of the desired car may be months out if a customer wants and selects alloy wheels. 

There are significant benefits in connecting or integrating the engineering configurator in PLM with the sales configurator. First technically possible configurations can be transferred to the sales configurator and there additional rules can be applied that are sales specific. Changes in technically possible configurations can also be automatically passed on to the sales configurator, ensuring that nothing is being sold that is no longer technically possible after a change. However, this approach requires that the sales configurator is powerful enough to handle the complexity of the combined rule-sets, which is often not the case for standard custom product configuration (CPQ) systems.

Another possibility is to establish a central configuration engine or configurator where all rules are defined, both what is technically possible and what the company can or wants to sell. This opens up for new possibilities where product variants first are introduced and analyzed in the central configuration system and from there, providing Engineering with information about what product variants they need to support. The same configuration system also supports sales configurators and later stages such as manufacturing and services.  Such an end-to-end approach ensures that information in PLM always is aligned with what is offered by Sales, and is what Configit calls Configuration Lifecycle Management or CLM. CLM, by its nature, is cross-functional. Once the product configuration options and all rules are available in one system, they are accessible by all departments providing a reliable, up-to-date source of information. Integration is required to extract the information needed from supporting IT systems in various departments, such as PLM, ERP, CRM, etc, but is not intrusive and doesn’t require each department to change its way of working. CLM, therefore, lends itself naturally to cross-functional collaboration initiatives, providing a single-source-of-truth on product configuration information that can be interpreted by all.

There are several ways to learn more about integrated configuration management and CLM, including white papers and online courses at https://configit.com/solutions/clm/. There is also a maturity model that allows conducting a high-level self-assessment of the current status of CLM at your organization. And lastly we recommend performing a more detailed assessment of your current product structures as well as your practices, processes and tools in the area of configuration management across your organization to identify areas of improvement and developing a strategy and roadmap towards a fully integrated solution for configuration lifecycle management. 

About the Authors:

Andreas Lindenthal is the founder and managing partner of PLMadvisors. He is a passionate thought leader and recognized industry expert with over 25 years international, hands-on experience in innovation, new product development (NPD), and product lifecycle management (PLM). He has a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Applied Sciences of Zurich, Switzerland and an MBA from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He has successfully served many leading global companies across various industries to sustainably improve their business results by helping them to drive innovation, increase productivity, shorten time-to-market, reduce costs, ensure compliance and improve product quality through the resourceful utilization of innovation, NPD and PLM practices, processes and technologies.

Henrik Hulgaard is the co-founder and CTO of Configit. Henrik has a background in electrical engineering and a PhD in Computer Science from University of Washington.  He has published more than 25 peer-reviewed research papers in the areas of formal verification and analysis. The last 20 years, he has worked on solving challenging configuration problems for Fortune 500 manufacturing companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, Philips and ABB with a focus on utilizing the best configuration technology to provide outstanding user experience and create significant business value.  

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